Vintage Macintosh: Getting Started

Now that I’ve started to spend more time on getting my vintage Macintoshes working, I’ve learned some things. I’ll be publishing articles from time to time explaining how I did things, or how i got things to work. Before diving into some details, I though it would be useful to “set the stage” for getting into the world of vintage Macintoshes.

Why We Do It

I had a friend ask me via Facebook “just how bored are you” when I posted that I was moving forward with my vintage Macs. The motivation will, of course, vary from person to person. For some, it is nostalgia, a trip down memory lane. For others, it is a technical challenge. Still others simply want to learn about the history of computing, and the Macintosh figured very prominently in the early days of personal computing.

For me, it is a combination of things. First, I had my first Macintosh (a Macintosh Plus I bought in the summer of 1986) still on a shelf, and I thought it would be fun to get it working again. That in turn led to a re-discovery of the beauty of the early days of the Macintosh, and a renewed interest in the first few generations of the machines. I’m also interested in history, and working with this older hardware and software has given me new ideas on how to approach modern projects I’m working on. Besides, as much as I would like to be a car collector, I currently don’t have the space or the budget. Collecting old Macintoshes takes up a lot less room and needs a much smaller budget.

Picking Your Vintage Macintosh

If you haven’t already got a vintage Macintosh, your first step is to pick one to start out with. My starting point was already decided, with my Macintosh Plus already in hand but needing some work. Which vintage Mac you start with will depend on a few things. If you already have a particular model in mind, then that’s obviously where you might want to start. But for others looking to jump on, there are plenty of choices.

The first thing to consider is how much of a challenge you want for yourself. If you’d like to start off simple, but still stay on “original Macintoshes”, then a Macintosh from the late 1980’s or early 1990’s is the way to go. These will be the easiest to work with when it comes to having to transfer software from a modern Mac. That means you are looking at the Macintosh SE, SE/30, Classic, Classic II, Color Classic or various versions of the Macintosh II, LC or Performa. There are also the first couple of generations of PowerBooks, as well as the Macintosh Portable if you want to go mobile. Most of these are powered by a version of the Motorola 68000 (hence their being known as “68k” machines), although some Performas also used the PowerPC.

You can go into the even newer machines that came out in the PowerPC era. These do tend to be cheaper, in part because they are more plentiful. Any that can still run Mac OS 8 or 9 may still be able to run a wide selection of vintage software. Some of these, though, are from Apple’s “darker days”, and don’t necessarily represent their best work when it comes to design. Don’t get me wrong, some are still beautiful, but a lot were the result of designing for low cost, not for aesthetics.

If You Go Old

But what about the original Macintoshes, the first of the so-called “tan toasters” from early-to-mid 1980’s? This would mean getting an original Macintosh (which also know as the “128K Mac”), the 512K “Fat Mac” that followed very shortly afterward, and the Macintosh Plus that came out in 1986.

The first two are definitely more of a challenge, in part because they only support 400K floppies, and don’t include SCSI support. That means you are creating floppies to get anything to run on them. You are also going to use much older versions of the operating system (up to System 3 for the 128K Mac, and System 4 for the 512K Mac), and finding images of those is a little harder. There isn’t a ton of software to choose from for this era of machine.

If you are going to go the 128K or 512K Macintosh route, then you will need a second vintage Macintosh to act as an intermediary for transferring software. Any Macintosh that supports SCSI (because you’ll likely be using CD’s to get software to the intermediary machine) and a floppy drive will do the trick.

The Macintosh Plus is an interesting beast, because it supports 800K floppies (meaning you can run a lot of interesting software on it) as well as SCSI drives. It will also run versions of the OS up to System 7.5.5, which expands the available software you can access. The Macintosh Plus is a nice balance between the “old” Macintoshes and the more recent models that followed.

Choices and Next Steps

To help guide you in your choice, I would suggest that you use the web site. It contains the specifications for every Macintosh ever made. It will tell you what ports and connections are available, which versions of Mac OS were supported, and what the upgrade options were for any particular model. That, in turn, will help you when you start to look at machines on sites like eBay, so you know what will and won’t work with a particular machine.

I would strongly suggest that any vintage Macintosh you buy as your “starter machine” be one that is already working and complete with a keyboard, mouse and (if applicable) monitor. Unless you are feeling brave, you want to stay away from replacing power supplies and such right away.

Once you have a working vintage Macintosh, you will then have some more work ahead of you. The first major hurdle is software, and another article will cover solutions for that. Then there are accessories (like external drives) and upgrades (memory, disk, network, expansion cards). If you have more than one vintage machine, you might want to build a network. If you are going to collect multiple machines, then there are considerations for spare parts that you should have, and thoughts about future planning.